Sports radio icon Big Al Davidson saw battle as a teen in the air force during Second World War

Broadcasting icon Big Al Davidson dominated the Lower Mainland airwaves with his fiery and often controversial sportscasts during his more than two decades as sports director at CKNW.

What his thousands of listeners never knew was that Davidson — who joined CKNW in 1958 after working at radio stations across Canada — was a Second World War veteran. Only 16 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943, he was still a teenager when he was sent overseas to serve with the 438 Wildcat Squadron. 

This Remembrance Day feature, adapted from an upcoming biography being written by trial lawyer and Douglas College instructor Michael Sporer, focuses on Davidson’s experiences during D-Day and the pivotal battles that followed.

The story picks up in 1943, when Al was a Grade 11 student in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ontario.  

Al was distracted. Mr. Garvey, his math teacher, demanded attention, so he hit Al on the shoulder with a wooden pointer. Garvey got Al’s attention — and more. Al decked Garvey with a punch.

Al was expelled. His father spoke bluntly: “You’ll get a job or you’ll join the army.”

“To hell with the army,” Al shot back. “I’m joining the Air Force!”

On January 18, 1943, the 16-year-old lied about his age on a Royal Canadian Air Force application form. Two days later, he appeared before the RCAF medical board. He was found to have a “wiry” build, at five feet, three inches tall, 110 pounds.

Al wanted to be a pilot. The medical officer demurred: “Doubtful that he is long enough in the leg to be a pilot … Suggest he be enlisted in ground trade.”

Al was assigned to basic training in Brandon, Manitoba, sent on to No. 1 Wireless School in Montreal, then posted to RCAF Station Gander in Newfoundland, where he had his first broadcasting experience at VORG, the “Voice of Radio Gander.”

After about six months at Gander, Al was given orders to report to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a ship was waiting. He was heading to 143 Wing Headquarters at Ayr Airfield in Scotland to join the 438 Wildcat Squadron.

The little guy they called “Peanuts” would be the youngest Wildcat. The Squadron would face tough days ahead.

Many Wildcats wouldn’t make it home.

Al Davidson was just 16 when he joined the air force after lying about his age on the application. He was just 18 when he served on battlefields during the Second World War. Submitted photo.

The ship left Halifax on Feb. 15, 1944. Three days later, Al celebrated his 18th birthday somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic. After nine days at sea, he stepped onto the British coast at Bournemouth, then travelled by rail to Ayr Airfield.

The pilots of 143 Wing — Squadrons 438, 439 and 440 — flew Typhoon fighter-bombers. These Canadian “Bomphoons” could carry big loads, including 500- and 1,000-pound bombs. After initial training, 143 Wing was sent to England’s south coast, to get ready to provide air support for 132,000 troops set to invade France.

Late on the night of June 5, everyone in 143 Wing was brought together for a speech from Wing Commander F.W. Hillock. He announced that the invasion would begin at 3 a.m. the following day. Cheers roared from the airmen of 143 Wing.

June 6, 1944, would be D-Day.

Al, as a radio operator, was responsible for communicating with Typhoon pilots, directing them to attacks on bridges, airfields and radar stations. He had to ensure that radio equipment in each Typhoon was in good working order. In the early morning hours of D-Day, the wireless operators settled in at their radios at positions near the runway.

At 6:55 a.m., twelve Wildcat Typhoons from 438 Squadron rolled down the runway and took off. The other two 143 Wing Squadrons each sent 12 Typhoons. The 36 Typhoons flying across the English Channel had to hit their targets with precise timing, just as Allied troops were landing in boats and scrambling onto the beach, under relentless enemy fire.

The bridgehead in France was established. At a terrible price. Nearly 11,000 young men on the Allied side were killed, wounded or captured.

As the army fought its way inland, 143 Wing had to provide close-in air support to the ground troops. The Wildcats, including Al, crossed the Channel and dug in at Lantheuil airfield near Caen, as the battle raged around them.

The diarist of 439 Squadron maintained his sense of humour during heavy bursts of gunfire as shells whistled by: “As the ‘Doc’ would say, there will be less need for administering laxatives.”

143 Wing in prayer at Lantheuil, where Al Davidson served as one of the radio operators who guided pilots.  ‘The powerful performance of the Canadian Typhoons would have been impossible, writes historian Hugh Halliday, ‘but for the herculean efforts of the groundcrew back at Lantheuil. It was a triumph of teamwork.’ epartment of National Defence, PL31433.

When enemy bombers flew low over Lantheuil the airfield erupted with the sound of anti-aircraft fire, which caused “shrapnel showers.” As Allied anti-aircraft gunners fired into the sky, gravity took over. Shrapnel rained down on the airmen, whose tents provided no protection. 

They pulled on steel helmets, dubbed “panic bowlers,” as they rushed to underground shelters and jumped into trenches.

The enemy was pushed from Caen July 18-20, but the Battle of Falaise took nearly two weeks, as Hitler refused to allow his troops to withdraw from the Normandy interior. Finally, on August 16 and 17, they retreated east through the “Falaise Gap.” As they withdrew, they were hammered by the Typhoons. On August 18, 143 Wing flew 176 sorties against the retreating columns.

Al and his groundcrew buddies were pushed to the limit. And they delivered.

The powerful performance of the Canadian Typhoons would have been impossible, writes historian Hugh Halliday, “but for the herculean efforts of the groundcrew back at Lantheuil … It was a triumph of teamwork, yet nothing less than what they had been trained to do in the most intense field conditions.”

Wildcat pilot Bob Spooner agreed. Spooner, perhaps the last of the Wildcat Typhoon pilots when interviewed in 2015 at 94 years old, said he relied on the skills of the groundcrews and described how hard the mechanics worked to keep the planes running.

And the wireless radio operators? “They were excellent.”

Spooner’s voice changed as he remembered what the young men went through together, and how they coped with death. The Battle of Falaise exacted a heavy price. Three Typhoon pilots were lost to anti-aircraft fire on August 18, and three more the next day. 

“When it happened,” said Spooner, “there were some pretty quiet days.”

But the decisive battle in Normandy was over, and the way to Paris was open. On August 25, the French capital was liberated. 143 Wing moved through France and crossed into Belgium, hopping from airfield to airfield. The pilots, in unfamiliar terrain, did not have the instruments of modern aircraft. They relied on radio operators like Al to guide them in, through darkness, fog and rain.

143 Wing moved farther north in September 1944, to Eindhoven, Holland.

A month later, the Wildcats intercepted a shipment of fine cigars destined for elite SS officers. As they celebrated at the Eindhoven airfield, Al perched on a thousand-pound bomb, lit one cigar from another, and said, “There’s nothing like an after-dinner cigar.”

RCAF photographer Ron Laidlaw snapped a picture of Al and sent it to Canada. Two weeks later, Port Arthur News-Chronicle readers were delighted to see their hometown boy on the bomb, under the heading: “Port Arthur Lad Lights Up.”

Big Al Davidson smoking a cigar atop a bomb, taken in Sept. 1944 at Eindhoven airfield, in Holland. CREDIT: Department of National Defence, PL33015

Hitler ordered a counter-offensive on December 16 and the Battle of the Bulge was underway.

For more than a week, the Typhoons were completely socked in and the enemy advanced in Belgium and Luxembourg. Finally, the sky cleared on December 24, and the Wildcats flew into the battle. On that first day, 143 Wing lost seven planes and pilots, their heaviest one-day loss.

But air support from 143 Wing and other aircraft proved to be the game breaker. Enemy supply lines were disrupted and the counter-offensive stalled.

Hitler remained desperate for a separate peace on the Western front and he manoeuvred to intensify the pressure. Another nasty surprise was brewing. A subordinate operation called Operation Baseplate, designed to keep the German counter-offensive going by attacking Allied airfields, was about to be unleashed.

This time 143 Wing would be a target.

On New Year’s Day, 1945, the Eindhoven airfield suddenly was attacked. Two Wildcat Typhoons on the runway never stood a chance. 143 Wing could not get planes in the air in time to meet the Luftwaffe. Al and his buddies, everyone on the ground, reached for guns.

Then the main Luftwaffe force came in, strafing and bombing.

Aftermath of German attack on Eindhoven airfield on New Year’s Day, 1945. CREDIT: Department of National Defence, PL31433

Surveying the damage: A downed enemy fighter after the attack on Eindhoven airfield on New Year’s Day 1945. CREDIT: Col. D Davies private collection

According to Hugh Halliday, the 143 Wing airmen on the ground fought back with “every gun at hand — pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns.” As waves of Luftwaffe planes hit the airfield, the fighters on the ground were outgunned.

When the attack stopped, the toll became clear. The 143 Wing medical report: “In a very few minutes the floors of our large ward and of the corridors were literally covered with an anonymous mass of gaping wounds and bloody uniforms …. We handled 63 patients and evacuated 49. In the afternoon, the mess was cleaned up and the dead prepared for burial.”

At the end of March, the Wing crossed the German border and on April 18, they moved deeper into Germany, to Celle.

The airmen had heard reports of a concentration camp in the area, but when they arrived at Celle — just 10 miles from the Bergen-Belsen camp — they learned more. In the very few papers he left, Al described Belsen as “shocking and horrible.”

143 Wing tried to respond, but for many victims it was too late.

Anne Frank, the teenage Amsterdam diarist, died at Belsen. She was still alive just weeks before the Canadians arrived.

143 Wing pilot Vic LeGear, interviewed in 1992, described what the Wildcats saw at Belsen: “Grave pits, each with some 8,000 bodies” and “near an incinerator, a stack of shoes twelve feet high by sixty feet long.”

Al’s brother Doug Davidson, in his mid-eighties, recently saw pictures of the battlefields where Al fought: the Luftwaffe attack on Eindhoven, the huge craters left by German bombs, the destroyed Typhoons, the burned vehicles.

Doug was seeing the photos for the first time during an interview in New Westminster, where he lives. He shook his head slowly as he went through them.

For the first time he had a clear image of his brother’s war years. Doug looked up from the pictures. He was emotional.

“No wonder Al didn’t like to talk about it.”

On May 5, 1945, the guns fell silent. It was over.

Most of the attention given 143 Wing is paid to the pilots, but Halliday describes their non-flying comrades — men like Al Davidson — as “unsung heroes.”

On July 27, 1945, Al, then 19, met with an RCAF counsellor to discuss his postwar future. The counsellor’s report records Al’s career goal: “Radio broadcasting.”

After clearing up in Europe, Al arrived in Halifax on April 4, 1946, and came home to Port Arthur.

Al didn’t talk much about the war. But his sleep pattern was disrupted. Night after night, the bad dreams came, and he would bolt awake, leap from bed, reach for his cigarettes, and shaken, light a smoke. For the rest of his life he would need those cigarettes — the smell, the taste, the feel — to keep his sense of stability and his demons at bay.

Forty years later, battles raged at CKNW over Al smoking in the station. He stubbornly fought back, even angrily exploded. Those he clashed with never understood. They didn’t know what it was about. And maybe Al didn’t fully understand the ferocity of his response either.

Sports broadcaster Al Davidson.

But no one could take away his cigarettes. Because always, at some level, they helped, as the darkness of the war persisted.

Broadcaster Al Davidson at CKNW in 1985.

Al Davidson died in Vancouver in 1991 at the age of 65. The biography “BIG AL: The Making of Legendary Sportscaster Al Davidson,” by Michael Sporer, is expected to be complete in Spring 2019.  

 

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